Pondering ‘Prog’ – The Tea Club

It seems as if the band is considered progressive rock by default: if there is no way to compartmentalize their music into an existing genre, it is conveniently sorted into this collection bin of odds and ends. Progressive rock, then, could not be an easy scene to get into — in defying classification, it should be difficult to know what makes a band peg themselves as ‘prog’, which may ultimately be all that holds it together as a genre.

This label could simply designate various strange novelties in music, but may indicate more than what is missing in the giant canopy of rock’s pre-established music scene. A sense of the ineffable qualities that hold a band in the progressive rock genre might be glimpsed between what a few members of this Barrington-based band had to say about music. Continue reading “Pondering ‘Prog’ – The Tea Club”

The Cold Lore

My fascination with Antarctica always struck me as a strange, random blip of an interest—something that I was drawn to for no apparent reason. I viewed it as a divergent fascination, separated from my other passions and pastimes — an isolated hobby of sorts that didn’t necessarily fit into the rest of my life; or, if I was feeling a bit new-agey, perhaps an inkling of a past, more adventurous life. Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s journals kept me up nights, a map of the barren white continent has remained taped to my wall for years now, and every few months I inevitably end up on various websites, researching future employment possibilities down South—real South. Continue reading “The Cold Lore”

Music in 2010

First and foremost, 2010 is proving to be a big comeback year for hip-hop. Last year had its fair share of memorable singles, but ultimately failed to deliver in the album department. But hell, when even Rick Ross is putting out a critically acclaimed album (check out Teflon Don!) you know the genre must be enjoying good times.

Hip-Hop Revival

Leading the pack so far are a couple of old standbys: Eminem and Big Boi — and what isn’t there to say about Big Boi’s solo debut? Mathers’ intractable “Yo I’ve been through a lot but I’m still here” mantra doesn’t break new ground, but Recovery has been adept at recapturing the interest of old fans who had been let down by 2009’s Relapse. The OutKast MC’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, Son of Chico Dusty was more than a reworking of Speakerboxx/The Love Below; it was a revelation, a much-delayed, much-hyped product that managed to hold relevance away from its gaudy backstory once it saw the light of day.

This is neither the time nor place to carp that Antwan Patton’s “Shutterbug” has not been all over the radio, but no other genre-borrowing rapper makes quite the journey he does into outside realms before coming home to his Southern roots. Patton’s record has been handed stellar reviews from the likes of The Village Voice, Allmusic.com, and Spin. Finally, if you want to dig deeper into hip-hop’s long list of summer successes, pick up the debuts from Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs, EP STr8 Killa and its outstanding mixtape Str8 Killa No Filla, and K.R.I.T. Wuz Here from Atlanta MC Big K.R.I.T. [King Remembered in Time].

Irish Indie Love

If you’re an indie rock fan, chances are you maybe might have heard that there’s a new Arcade Fire record. And it’s kind of good. (It did debut at number one in the US, the UK, and Canada. And Ireland.) The Suburbs does hold up surprisingly well over a staggering sixteen tracks, whether or not it surpasses Funeral. The Montreal torchbearers tactfully refine their old standards rather than stumble through unnatural ones – featuring unabashed Springsteen worship on “Month of May,” unabashed emoting on “Sprawl II,” and plenty of “us against the world” lyrical themes.

While Arcade Fire further established themselves as an indie standard, Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells is the new buzz band that most penetrated the blogosphere. This male-female tandem of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss delivered with Treats, a collection of pop songs for the recession era — homemade or low-budget sounding but infectious and, well, noisy enough to cause a stir. On the singles front, of the summery buzz bands, Best Coast delivered with “Boyfriend,” and The Drums with “Let’s Go Surfing.”

Soulful Stunner

Perhaps the summer’s most genre-bending success was Janelle Monaé, a pop/R&B/everything-in-between singer based in Kansas City. On her debut, the 25-year-old Monae pulls innovation from eccentrics like M.I.A. at her creative peak (read: not Maya) blended with ’80s Prince. It may also prove to be the only album in history to feature Big Boi and Of Montreal.

On the pop front, the charts were predictably dominated by more genre-conglomerates and guest spots, with considerably less acumen. For instance, a perfectly good David Guetta single, “Getting Over You,” was strapped with a pair of dumbbells, LMFAO and Fergie, on its way to Top 40 success.  However, there were a few Top 40 highlights; “Mine” further proved Taylor Swift to be one cool lady, and “Misery” made it cool to like Maroon 5, however nonchalantly, to the point of not caring. On the topic of not caring, the two most played songs on Z100 appear to both involve Pitbull. Never mind, let’s gear up for fall.


Factory Girl Talk

Think of Girl Talk—the stage name of mash-up mastermind Greg Gillis—as modern music’s Andy Warhol. Both are ardent recycle-ists: Warhol turned soup cans into Fine Art; Girl Talk turns other artists’ songs into his own. Both are willing to undermine an ideal of authenticity: Warhol would let people impersonate and even sign for him if he didn’t want to show up at a gallery; Girl Talk makes almost no original sounds of his own, yet he puts his name on his mash-up albums. But most importantly, both are firmly rooted Pop artists, and yet both consistently question what it means to be Pop.

Part of this means that both artists allow for multiple interpretations: some say Warhol was fully embracing low-brow Americana, like Brillo Boxes, while others say he was ridiculing it, using repetition to emphasize absurdity. Similarly, it’s easy to understand Girl Talk on many levels: is he celebrating all pop music, or is he juxtaposing lesser works with unimpeachable songs for implicit criticism?

But of course Girl Talk, like Warhol, is much more than a series of simple juxtapositions. Gillis has declined to offer any central or guiding theme in any of his work, except to say that he is a “pop music enthusiast.” Instead, each of his songs is not only original, but also unique in message. Some of his sampling is pure celebration of good pop music from many eras (as in “Smash Your Head,” the instant classic of Night Ripper, with Notorious BIG’s “Juicy” over Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”). This includes bringing yesterday’s hits to younger listeners, reminding older listeners of forgotten gems, and allowing everyone to relish in universally beloved hits. In fact, Gillis admits, “It’s important that you can recognize all the elements. The whole basis of the music is that people have these emotional attachments to these songs—whether they love it or hate it. Being able to manipulate that is a really easy way to connect with people.” *

Yet, in complete contrast, some of his songs are subliminally political, almost neutering chauvinist rappers by giving them “emasculating” backgrounds (as in Feed the Animals’ “No Pause,” in which Eminem’s club-sex rant is made silly in front of Yael Naim’s “New Soul”). Still other songs work in a different way, elevating the banal, crude, or more lowbrow in pop to the level of more critically hailed works, by giving them new background beats, or removing vocals, or repeating lyrical loops over and over. But all of his music does serve one mission: the exploration of new pop possibilities, by making music that amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.

What makes Girl Talk great, though, is expressed not in words in phrases, but in dance. With entirely sampled, diverse material, he has made cohesive albums that bring genres — and people — together. He makes commercial music cool, and he makes cool music commercial. Because his music is simultaneously so rhythmic and capricious, people who like “My Humps” and people who like The Band can find something to listen to and agree on, especially with crossovers like Jackson 5 rippling throughout.
*(From an interview with Pitchfork.com)


When our parents discuss “the classics,” there is little leeway and little variation. How can one argue the greatness of The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Nirvana? The music of past generations existed in a pre-Internet age, when the masses were exposed to a precious few chart-toppers whose canonization was met with deservedly few objections. But since the turn of the millennium, genres have split sharply, and an exponentially expanded musical marketplace has made viable the potential for canonizing more ‘underground’ artists.

So when we sit down to tell our children about the “classics” of this era, which names will be dropped?

We won’t have to dig too deep for artists whose careers have been wholly synonymous with the success of their respective genres. And yet, there are many more landmark-making musicians whose relative obscurity might cause them to be missed by those still reliant on the FM dial.

Unbeknownst to many, these active acts are churning out generation-defining records to a gracious crowd of music insiders and indie rock aficionados.

The following is a list of ten artists, some of whom have become ubiquitous, and others who struggle for recognition outside high-brow cultural circles. These performers may well be considered the “classics” for future generations:


Countless new rappers are supposed to “change the game,” but few have matched the hype like Kanye did earlier this de­cade. Not content merely to popularize “positive rap,” the self-proclaimed “voice of this generation” has morphed sparkling production and pop sensibilities into several distinct formats since his 2003 debut, The College Dropout. In 2007’s Gradu­ation, Kanye borrowed driving beats from European techno, threw down his signature rhymes and hooks, mashed it all together, and emerged with another Grammy. Just over a year later, with 2008’s sparse, Autotuned anti-rap 808s and Heart­break, Kanye managed to both evade “career killer” status and drop several more irresistible singles. Aside from creat­ing some of the era’s most emblematic music, West’s much-publicized personal exploits have revealed a sometimes arro­gant, always eccentric, and yet utterly relatable pop star. Do yourself a favor and check out his perpetually CAPS LOCKED musings on Twitter.


James Murphy, the New York City-based DJ, producer, DFA Records honcho, and LCD mastermind is the first on this list whose music should be considered classic, but whose appeal might yet be too narrow for such a designation. Since 2002, Murphy has released two acclaimed albums, both lauded by critics as defining contributions to electronic and dance mu­sic. By combining decades’ worth of musical knowledge with entrancing disco-electro-house-synthpop, Murphy has brought a renewed legitimacy to a genre long dogged by passing trends and an ecstasy-ridden past.


Before they became the most frequently name-dropped band in the indie rock blogosphere, Arcade Fire was an unknown husband-wife project kicking around the Montreal under­ground scene. Funeral, their 2004 debut, entered the fray at a time when three or four-piece garage bands were the hot item. Then, suddenly, the concept of twenty musicians onstage si­multaneously playing everything from guitar to glockenspiel became the new craze among music journalists. The band turned down offers from nearly every major record label and released 2007’s Neon Bible, their almost-just-as-good follow-up, on Merge Records – known for employing less then ten people. Not only are they indie rock’s saviors; Arcade Fire is also not for sale.


Dominated by disposable teen pop at one end and rap-metal at the other, mainstream popular music hit an all-time low at the turn of the millennium. JT of course cannot be blamed for Limp Bizkit, but for helping to popularize the boy-band trend as *NSYNC’s front man, he is guilty-as-charged. However, since going solo in 2002, Timberlake’s epiphany-like reinvention has mirrored the very rebirth of mainstream pop music in the latter half of the decade. Early critical claims of brilliance were ‘justified,’ pun in­tended, by 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds – the most au­thoritative pop album of the 2000s. Producer-extraordi­naire Timbaland infused heavy R&B influence into the pop mogul’s sound, and the artist who was once ridiculed as nothing more than the object of middle school-aged girls’ wet dreams had arrived as the decade’s most mature face in pop music.


While some artists pride themselves on keeping a con­sistent sound, Radiohead has built a fanatical following with an album-by-album metamorphosis. Five years af­ter “Creep,” their comparatively innocuous debut single, 1997’s career-defining OK Computer captured the para­noia of a generation just coming to terms with a new age of technology. Always ones to stay ahead of the curve, Thom Yorke and company released 2007’s In Rainbows exclusively as an online download, allowing purchasers to name their own price (including $0.00). As of late, the fivesome seems unwilling to craft another record by con­ventional means, an approach likely to be verified by a much-anticipated new album in 2010.


“Takeover,” the second offering on Jay-Z’s 2001 classic The Blueprint, is one of the most merciless diss tracks in the annals of hip-hop: the breaking point of his heated feud with Nas. Who other than Jay-Z could self-assuredly dis­miss the artist behind Illmatic (arguably the genre’s great­est album) as a “little fuck?” Jay-Z is the hip-hop authority, the purveyor of countless hit tracks, and guest of honor on even more. By 2009, Hova declared himself “the new Sina­tra” and wrote “Death of Autotune,” seemingly as the only man alive whose ego was big enough to stop the stampede of T-Pain imitators.


During an era in which mainstream rock has crum­bled beneath the weight of post-grunge sludge and mall emo nonsense, these one-time new wave reviv­alists are one of the few dependable standards on the rock radio dial. From the synth-happy New Or­der worship of their 2004 breakthrough Hot Fuss, to the similarly detectable Bruce Springsteen worship on 2006’s Sam’s Town, Brandon Flowers’ crew has enjoyed remarkable consistency on the charts despite major shifts in sound. And really, who can blame the enigmatic front-man for taking well-deserved shots at Fall Out Boy and The Bravery?


The fascinatingly obtuse Sufjan Stevens has kept indie kids guessing his next move all decade with little success. His ac­claimed “50 States Project,” which promised a concept album thematically based on every U.S. state, has produced only two entries since its 2003 inception – and may already be over. But for many, 2005’s Illinois will suffice; even with a limited dis­cography, the Brooklyn minstrel is among the decade’s most successful artists, leaving fans holding their breath while he decides what to do next.


The indie scene was introduced to songwriter Antony Hegarty in 2005, when he was awarded Britain’s cov­eted Mercury Prize for best album, beating out a slew of heavy favorites. That year’s I Am a Bird Now and this year’s Crying Light are spellbinding orchestrations of dark cabaret, with Hegarty’s quivering vibrato as the fo­cal point. As a member of New York’s gay community, his music explores issues of gender identity, self-per­ception, and life and death – with chilling immediacy.


In an Atlanta scene plagued by repetitive gangsta postur­ing, Outkast’s dynamic, left-brained persona has set the standard for innovative contemporary hip-hop. Is it any wonder that since the duo went on hiatus a few years ago, we’ve had to endure the rise of Soulja Boy-esque bangers and generic Auto-tuned money-grabs? Those whose thirst was not fully quenched by 2004’s uber-successful Speak­erboxx/The Love Below should remain cautiously optimis­tic: Big Boi and André 3000 will be back sooner or later. The pair will carry with them the funkiest, oddball-est, and perhaps most meteorically successful catalogue of the de­cade, from “Rosa Parks,” to “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad),” to the crossover hit to end all crossover hits – “Hey Ya!”